My Two Girls
By Marieke Steiner
After having been admitted to the hospital several days ago for toxic shock syndrome from a menstrual cup, my youngest daughter Brittany is now septic. Brit’s health declined sharply after the antibiotics for the staph infection didn’t work, her doctor explained. Sepsis is a life-threatening condition; that much I know. At best my daughter will regain most of her health and require a lifetime of dialysis, I was told. But if the infection spreads, she could lose her toes and some of her limbs as well. Since Brit’s always been extremely vain about her appearance, I fear that the prospect of toe amputation alone will send her into a deep depression.
Last night during visiting hours I saw her lying intubated in a bed in the ICU. Accordion-like plastic tubing coiled from her mouth to the apparatus that breathed for her while thinner tubing the thickness of spaghetti wound from her forearm to the IV pole. A third mass of plastic hung like tangled hair from the urine bag clamped to the side of the bed, a single strand of catheter taped to the inside of her leg. I’d tried to coach myself beforehand, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of her. The bed seemed too large for her, and all the life-saving machines seemed too large for the room. I held her hand amongst the whirring of the ventilator and wondered if she could hear my soft moans, feel my touch, sense my presence.
When would she open her eyes?
Would she open her eyes?
Taptaptap. I text my older daughter, Alicia, also known as Dr. Sloan, a question about Brit: u know she might not make it rt. The hospital where Ali works as a physician is the same facility in which her sister is currently a patient. Before pressing the green Send arrow, I look over my message, then add a question mark at the end. There, I think. That makes the outcome sound less certain.
It’s Saturday morning before breakfast and I’m standing at my kitchen counter, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and my slippers that say OFF on the top of one and DUTY on the other. A co-worker gave them to Ali as a Secret Santa gift, but my daughter never wore them and handed them up to me brand-new. She probably never had time to wear them. The girl is always working and “on duty” 24/7 as far as I’m concerned. “They suit you more than me,” she’d claimed, handing me the gift bag they came in. It’s nice that Ali and I have the same shoe size. We wear the same size in clothing too. Her used scrubs make the comfiest pajamas!
Last night I tossed and turned in my bed and slept fitfully, listening for my phone to go off, afraid I would miss updates on Brit’s condition. Being home still beats trying to sleep sitting up in a recliner in a hospital room, like I’d been doing for the previous couple of nights.
The clock on the wall reads 8:05 as I place the K-cup in its slot in the Keurig. Ali is probably in the middle of her rounds right now and won’t be able to return my call – er, text – any time soon. I shake my head at my slip up. Back in the day we just picked up the telephone – rotary dial and corded in my case – to reach another human. I suppose some people still do that – grab hold of their wireless devices, I mean, to speak with each other. Unfortunately, my two girls aren’t big phone-talkers like their mother is. Their father wasn’t either. May he rest in peace.
My husband Tom and I had two daughters several years apart whom he did not live to see grow up. A ruptured aneurysm at age 40 snuffed out all hope he had of a future with his wife and children. As for me, in mere minutes I was left alone to raise our two girls on my own. How would we cope, I wondered? Tom had always been so involved in Ali’s and Brit’s lives. Would our daughters turn out all right without their father in the picture, I worried?
And then there was my main concern: What would we do for money?
Because with Tom gone, I had suddenly become the family breadwinner.
When Brit was a newborn and the doctor handed her to me, swaddled in her teal and fuchsia-striped flannel blanket, a pink knit beanie on her head, I did not feel an instant connection to her like I had toward Ali. Frankly, Brit did not resemble any one of us, and I wondered if there had been some sort of mix-up in the nursery, like in the movies. Tom, sensing my uneasiness whenever I cradled our newborn daughter, tried to comfort me.
No worries. You got this.
Then, when my baby girl was almost nine months old, I accidentally locked her in the bathroom. Tom worked long hours, and as soon as his truck pulled out of the driveway, I would run around the house and deadbolt every entrance – front, side, back, and kitchen, in that order. As for Brit, if she wasn’t in my arms, she was hoisted on my hip, even when I went to the restroom. I set her down, of course, while I used the toilet, but never for very long.
This time after I’d finished, I’d forgotten to pick her back up. Then I’d left the room, pressing the button to the interior lock on the bathroom doorknob on my way out. From the other side of the door, I peeked through the keyhole and saw her seated on the rug in the same position as I’d left her. As soon as I’d heard the lock click into place, I knew what I’d done. I rattled the doorknob with a vengeance, but it was no use. Brit, who didn’t even crawl, wouldn’t be able to pull herself up to reach the knob, or know what to do even if she could. The thought of all those hard surfaces, wood and porcelain and metal, not to mention the sharp angled corners of the cabinetry and drawers, made me panic. I was helpless to protect her and even less capable of rescuing her.
It wasn’t until I peered into the space between the bottom of the door and the floor and saw her slither on her stomach towards the sound of my voice that I was finally able to relax. As her hand reached under the door and grabbed my thumb, relief washed over me. I called out her name, and she babbled “Mama!” to me until Tom successfully broke in through the bathroom window and unlocked the door from the inside. Although replacing the window cost a pretty penny, the bond created between Brit and me was priceless.
Now the screen on my phone flashes and jumpstarts me out of my reverie. I hope the brightness means that Ali has an update on Brit’s condition. I stare at the small screen as if there’s a movie with subtitles playing on it. Ali is typing, it says. News is on its way.
liver and kidneys r still malfxning, I read, followed by organ transplants may be needed.
Then still 2 early 2 tell
touch and go.
I’m shocked – I know Ali is wearing her physician’s “hat” right now, but Brit’s situation still sounds so dire. A complete recovery is possible, isn’t it? A complete recovery is always possible, I tell myself, whether backed by science or not. Miracles happen every day, after all.
Ali seems to have dropped off texting me, thank goodness. I decide I can’t handle reading another depressing word, so I slump down on the closest kitchen chair and stretch out an arm to rest my head on. In the process, the phone slips from my hand and clatters to the floor.
All of a sudden, I sit up with a start — my phone’s ringing. How could I have dozed off at a time like this? I stare at the clock to figure out how long I’ve been asleep, but the timepiece seems to be melting, like in the Salvador Dali painting, The Persistence of Time. Oh well, I have been sleep-deprived lately, I remind myself. Maybe it was a hallucination.
The jangling happens again – twice. Someone is trying to reach me. I lean down and snatch up my phone to check the number. It’s Ali. A phone call from her is unusual and if she keeps it up, I just might have to stop teasing her about the calluses forming on her thumbs from non-stop texting.
I let it ring again – a fourth time – without answering.
If it’s bad news, do I really want to know?
Then I take a deep breath, hope for the best and swipe up on the green icon before lifting the device to my ear.
When I hear Ali squealing, I exhale loudly. Oh, thank God.
“Mom, mom, come quick!” my doctor-daughter exclaims. “Brit’s awake and lucid and wants to see you.”
I keep the phone pressed to my ear with one hand as I grab my purse and car keys with the other and head out the door. Destination: Hospital. I don’t even bother to swap out my slippers for shoes. Brit won’t care. I do hope she’ll notice, though, and make a comment. She’s always been a clotheshorse and her opinion of my outfit will mean she’s feeling at least a little like herself again.
As I turn the key in the ignition, tears of relief and gratitude slide down my cheeks.
Brit, my baby, is still with me.
And so is my Ali, my “ally.”
My two girls are still with me.
Marieke Steiner is a technical writer who lives in Hampton Roads, Virginia, US. She has been published previously in Spadina Literary Review, Terror House Magazine, Short Kid Stories, and Smarty Pants Magazine for Kids, and has a short story forthcoming in Mystery Tribune. In her spare time, she takes graduate courses in public administration at Old Dominion University in Norfolk where she is also a poetry and fiction reader for the school’s literary journal: https://barelysouthreview.com/